Pitt, Nelson, and Napoleon



WILLIAM Pitt II had taken office in 1783 as chancellor of the exchequer and first lord of the treasury. He who gathered and dispensed the money of the realm was to be lord of the isles and the Maecenas of coalitions.

He had enjoyed almost every advantage available to a Briton. He came of a prominent family, and absorbed world politics, high finance, and good manners from the conversation and entourage of his brilliant father, the Earl of Chatham. He had the best private education, much of it directly from that father himself. He entered Parliament at twenty-one, and took charge of England at twenty-four. He overwhelmed opposition by his proud reserve, his intellectual equipment, the logic, rather than passion, of his oratory, the firmness and penetration of his eye, his knowledge and manipulation of public finance. He had read and admired Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations; he accepted Smith’s philosophy of free enterprise and free trade. He, the aristocrat, supported the claim of the rising mercantile and industrial bourgeoisie to fuller representation in Parliament and policy; with their fluid wealth he fought Napoleon, while the aristocracy, with their wealth in immobile land, contributed counsel, diplomacy, and protocol. He established a sinking fund for paying the national debt, and succeeded in reducing that debt until war took every shilling that could be drawn from the nation. He tried manfully but in vain to eliminate “rotten boroughs,” though he had used them in his rise. He supported a measure that transferred from the judge to the popular jury the decision in cases of alleged libel—i.e., he protected the press in its exposure of official misconduct. He supported Wilberforce in the long campaign against the trade in slaves. Napoleon defeated him and broke his spirit, but it was the Britain that he had reorganized, financed, and inspired that defeated Napoleon.

The British King was almost as much of a problem as the French Consul. George III followed Pitt’s advice in almost everything but the emancipation of the Catholics; but the aging monarch was at any moment liable to relapse into insanity—as he did in 1788–89; and when such breakdowns came, the Prince of Wales always hovered near the throne—the Prince who was the idol of the Whigs and the friend of Charles James Fox, who agreed with Pitt only in loving wine this side of paralysis. For a while George III wasrelied upon to die (1787); he recovered, but remained weak and hesitant; and generally thereafter submitted, wondering, to Pitt’s rule.

When the young statesman took the reins England was just beginning to recover from the disastrous war with her American colonies. Britain seemed militarily ruined in face of a France bankrupt but victorious, a Spain prospering and enlightened under Charles III, and a Russia swelling its borders under Catherine II, organizing vast armies, swallowing half of Poland, and plotting to divide European Turkey between herself and Joseph II of Austria. Now the safety of England depended on two conditions: her control of the seas, and the balance of political power in Continental Europe. If either end of that balance became supreme, it could dictate to England, simply by closing Continental markets to British goods. The death of Joseph II (1790) eased the Eastern threat; Catherine hesitated; and Pitt was about to turn from foreign to domestic affairs when the French Revolution announced that it had come to give a constitution to monarchies, or destroy them. Day by day the astonishing news crossed the Channel: the Bastille had been stormed by a city mob; feudal rights had been surrendered; church property had been confiscated by an impious state; a horde of women had marched on Versailles, and had forced Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to come and live in Paris under popular surveillance.

At first Pitt was not as disturbed as his upper-class friends. After all, England already had a constitution, which any number of famous Frenchmen had praised and envied. A little turmoil in France would be appreciated: England could then work in peace on her internal problems while France disordered and then reconstituted its political life.1 While aristocrats trembled, British men of letters rejoiced—Godwin, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Cowper, Burns. On November 4, 1789, a “Society for Commemorating the Revolution” (of 1688), was so stirred by a Unitarian preacher, Richard Price, that it sent an address of congratulations to the National Assembly in Paris, expressing the hope that “the glorious example given in France” might encourage other nations to assert the “inalienable rights of mankind.”2 The message was signed for the Society by its president, the third Earl Stanhope, brother-in-law of William Pitt. Price’s address, circulated as a pamphlet throughout England, almost called for revolution:

Be encouraged, all ye friends to freedom, and writers in its defence! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors! Behold the light you have struck out—after setting America free—reflected to France, and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes, and warms and illuminates Europe!

Tremble, all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning, all ye supporters of slavish governments and slavish hierarchies!… You can not now hold the world in darkness…. Restore to mankind their rights, and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.3

This was more than Edmund Burke could stomach. He was no longer the fiery orator who had pleaded the cause of the American colonies before Parliament; he was sixty now, he had mortgaged himself to a large estate, and had regained the religion of his youth. On February 9, 1790, in the House of Commons, he began a debate which ended his old friendship with Charles James Fox:

Our present danger is… from anarchy: a danger of being led, through an admiration of successful fraud and violence, to an imitation of the excess of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscatory, plundering, ferocious, bloody, and tyrannical democracy. On the side of religion the danger is no longer from intolerance but from atheism—a foul, unnatural vice, a foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind—which seems in France, for a long time, to have been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed.4

In November, 1790, Burke issued his Reflections on the French Revolution. He gave them the form of a letter to “a gentleman in Paris”—a letter 365 pages long. He denounced Dr. Price and the Society for Commemorating the Revolution: clergymen, he felt, should mind their business, which is to preach Christian virtues, not political reforms; the virtues reach to the heart of the matter, which is the evil tendencies of human nature; the reforms change only the surface forms of evil, for they effect no change in the nature of man. Universal suffrage is a fraud using a delusion; a count of noses will not affect the distribution and decisions of power. Social order is indispensable to individual security, but it cannot survive if every individual is free to violate any law that he does not like. An aristocracy is desirable, for it allows a nation to be ruled by trained and selected minds. Monarchy is good because it gives a psychological unity and historical continuity helpful in the difficult reconciliation of order with liberty.

Two months after this historic blast Burke published a Letter to a Member of the National Assembly of France. In this—and more fully in a Letter to a Noble Lord (1796)—he offered a philosophical basis for conservatism. No individual, however brilliant and well informed, can in one lifetime acquire the knowledge and wisdom that would warrant him to sit in judgment upon those complex, subtle, and persisting traditions that embody the experience and judgment of the community, the nation, or the race after thousands of experiments in the great laboratory called history. Civilization would be impossible “if the practice of all moral duties, and the foundations of society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every individual.”5 So religion can only with great difficulty be explained to the youth who has acquired a little knowledge, and is delighting in his liberated reason; not until he has much experience of human nature, and has seen the power of primitive instincts, will he appreciate the services of religion in helping society to control the innate individualism of men. “If we should uncover our nakedness [release our instincts] by throwing off the Christian religion, which has been… one great source of civilization amongst us,… we are apprehensive… that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take the place of it.”6 Likewise it is difficult to explain to the youngster newly enreasoned, and envious of his neighbor’s goods, that a man of exceptional ability will not go through long and expensive training to acquire a socially useful skill, or bestir himself to practice it, unless he is allowed to keep a portion of his earnings as a gift to his chidren. Furthermore, human society is not merely an association of persons in space, it is also a succession of persons in time—of persons dead, living, or unborn, in a continuity of flesh and blood through generations. That continuity lies more deeply in us than our association on a given spot of earth; it can persist through migrations across frontiers. How can this be made clear to boys bursting with individual ambition and sophomoric pride, and recklessly ready to snap family ties or moral bonds?

Burke’s dirge for a dying world was greeted with gratitude and delight by the conservative leaders of Britain; and men of seasoned judgment accepted the three publications as a distinguished contribution to social and political philosophy. Coleridge, in his later years, enthused over them as once he had rejoiced over the Revolution. “I cannot conceive,” he wrote in 1820, “a time or a state of things in which the writings of Burke will not have the highest value…. There is not one word I would add or withdraw.”7

Two Britons, among many, came to the defense of the Revolution: Sir James Mackintosh with Vindiciae Gallicae, and Thomas Paine with The Rights of Man—both in 1791. The Revolution was then only two years old, but it had already done its basic work—given France a liberal constitution, ended feudal privileges, established freedom of speech, press, and assemblage, and appropriated the wealth of the Church to rescue a bankrupt state; the destructive excesses of the Revolution had not yet come. Under the circumstances Mackintosh could reply to Burke that the Revolution was a legitimate protest against an unjust and incompetent government. Paine could argue that no tradition should be suffered to deny all efforts at reform, and that the rights proclaimed by the Revolution were the proper charter of a modern state.

But Paine went much further. He demanded the replacement of monarchy and aristocracy by a republic; a steeply graduated income tax that would redistribute concentrated wealth, and would use it to wipe out unemployment and poverty, and provide education for every child, and a pension for the old. And he restated the rights of man in terms of Rousseau:

1. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.

2. The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.

3. The Nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.8

The Rights of Man sold fifty thousand copies in a few weeks; this may indicate the strength of the radical movement in England in 1791. Societies more or less radical flourished: the Society for Constitutional Information, the Corresponding Society of London, the Scottish Friends of the People, the Society for Commemorating the Revolution. Some of these sent compliments to the French Revolution; two of them helped to give Paine’s book a wide distribution.

Pitt observed, and was disturbed. Privately he was impressed by Paine’s book: “Paine is no fool,” he said to his niece; “he is perhaps right; but if I did what he wants I should have thousands of bandits on my hands tomorrow, and London burned.”9 He issued an order for Paine’s arrest; Paine fled to France; he was tried in absence, and was declared guilty of treason (December, 1792).

The English had many reasons for not following France into revolution. They had had their 1789 in 1642. They had had their intellectual revolt before the French: the deist erosion of orthodox belief had preceded the French Enlightenment, and had been absorbed into British equanimity by the time Voltaire reached England in 1726. The Methodist movement diverted some discontent into piety. The Anglican Church was comparatively liberal, and had not acquired enough wealth to arouse the envy and hostility of the laity. Feudalism had disappeared; there were no feudal dues; a large proportion of the peasantry owned the land that it tilled. The middle class had already entered Parliament, and found effective voice in national policy; the Prime Minister often supported its claims. The workers were badly treated by employers and legislators, and some rebelled violently, but the Army could be depended upon to suppress them, and the judiciary to hang their leaders. When England and France went to war, patriotism diverted class hatred into nationalist fervor. Revolution subsided into reform, and spread itself out through the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile the French Revolution had passed from legislation to the September Massacres; its army had defeated the Prussians and the Austrians at Valmy (September 20, 1792); and the revolutionary fever had spread into Rhineland Germany. The citizens of Mainz and Darmstadt, having thrown off feudal rule and set up a popular government, and fearing invasion and punishment by monarchical troops, had sent emissaries to France, asking protection. After some debate the French government issued (November 19, 1792) the most revolutionary of all its decrees:

The National Convention declares, in the name of the French Nation, that it will accord fraternity and aid to all peoples who wish to recover their liberty, and charges the executive power to give the generals the orders necessary for bringing aid to these peoples, and to defend the citizens who shall have been, or may be, troubled for the cause of freedom.10

This recklessly generous announcement set every European monarchy on edge. The government of Great Britain was further alarmed by the advance of French troops into Belgium, and the demands of France upon Holland for the opening of the River Scheldt to all trade. This navigable river, 270 miles long, rises in eastern France, and wanders through Belgium (passing close to Antwerp) into Holland, where it divides into two estuaries and empties into the North Sea. Holland, by permission of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), had closed both estuaries to all trade except of its own choice, which favored Britain and excluded Belgium; so Antwerp declined and Amsterdam flourished. On November 27, 1792, the French government notified England of its resolve to force open the outlets of the Scheldt. Pitt replied that Britain was bound, by a treaty of 1788, to protect Holland from any foreign attack. Furthermore, since the Rhine also emptied into the North Sea through Dutch estuaries, the control of Holland by France would mean French control of the mouths of the Rhine, and therefore of British trade reaching central Germany by the Rhine. On December 31, 1792, the British government notified France that

England will never consent that France should arrogate the power of annulling at her pleasure—and under the pretence of a pretended natural right of which she makes herself the only judge—the political system of Europe, established by solemn treaties and guaranteed by the consent of all the Powers. This government, adhering to the maxims which it has followed for more than a century, will also never see with indifference that France shall make itself, either directly or indirectly, the sovereign of the Low Countries, or general arbiter of the rights and liberties of Europe.11

January 21, 1793, the French government beheaded Louis XVI. News of this reached London on the 23rd, shocking George III, and, soon thereafter, most of the British people. On January 24 the British government ordered the French minister, Marquis François-Bernard de Chauvelin, to leave the kingdom. On February 1 France declared war on both England and Holland.

George III welcomed the war, believing that it would unify the nation. Pitt regretted it, but gave it all his energies. He opened negotiations that led to the First Coalition (1793): Britain, Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Naples, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. He levied high taxes upon every class and group in the kingdom, and sent repeated subsidies to his allies. He tightened the laws against any propaganda defending France or the Revolution. He suspended the freedom of the press, and (1794) the Habeas Corpus Act, which had secured the right of every arrested person to early trial or speedy release; political suspects could now be held without trial. (France did the same.) After an antiwar demonstration in which a stone was thrown at the King, the Seditious Meetings Act (1796) forbade meetings of over fifty people except under governmental license and control. Critics of the British Constitution were liable to seven years’ exile in Australia’s Botany Bay. Prominent radicals—John Home Tooke, philologist, John Thelwall, friend of the early Coleridge, and shoemaker Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society—were tried on charges of treason (May, 1794), were defended by Thomas Erskine, and were acquitted.

These trials revealed the panic that had struck the upper classes of Britain when they found themselves faced by another revolution so soon after the costly revolt of the American colonies. The thousand-year-old world of kings and aristocracies seemed to be collapsing, besieged by peasants burning feudal châteaux and title deeds, and by city mobs imprisoning the royal family and cutting off hundreds of noble heads. All this, many Britons felt, was the result of atheistic French “philosophers,” and of their English imitations, Godwin and Paine. Any time now the godless French troops would take Holland and the Rhineland; in a year or two they might try to invade England. How could Britain, with only 15 million men and no standing army, defeat in war a France with 28 million men and an army already proud with victory?

Pitt knew all this, but he thought in terms of money rather than of men; men could be bought for money, if not in England, then in Austria, Prussia, Russia; and England had money, coming in every day from commerce, industry, land, colonies, loans, taxes on every article of consumption, on every form of income. These revenues could equip a small army for defense against an improbable invasion; they could keep Britain’s factories humming, her press patriotic and her caricaturists at the top of their form; they could pay for new armies provided by allies short of money and long of men. Above all, they could build and man ships numerous enough, armed enough, to control the oceans, blockade every French port, capture any French vessel at sea, annex to the British Empire any French colony. Every month that Navy was growing in sturdy ships and disciplined, incomparable seamen. And it had one of the greatest admirals in history.

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